MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

There are times when you least expect it to, when you least want it to, that baseball will remind you of how strong a hold it has on you — and has for your entire life.

Frank Howard, the great and enormous Washington Senators slugger, died on Monday at age 87, just a little over a month after Brooks Robinson, the Hall of Fame third baseman of the Baltimore Orioles, died at the age of 86. Not only were Hondo and Brooks two of the very best players of their time, they were likely the kindest and most beloved players of their time.

For the seven seasons Howard played for Washington (1965-71), he and Brooks played their home games roughly 45 minutes apart from each other, which means the Senators and the Orioles were two of the three teams most fans here in 2 Hours from Everywhere rooted for, with the Pittsburgh Pirates being the third.

In our neighborhood, two of my very best friends, Chris Ruppenkamp and James Conley, and I grew up playing baseball every day there was no school, morning, noon to when the streetlights came on; and when we weren’t playing ball, we were listening to it or watching it (each of us had our own scorebook) at one of three houses — Chris’, James’ or mine, depending on which team was being televised on any given evening or afternoon.

Chris remains a Pirates fan, I remain an Orioles fan, James was a Senators fan, and Frank Howard was his favorite player.

Depending upon the variation of baseball we were playing — and there were hundreds of them with just three to four players — Chris was always Roberto Clemente, I was Brooks (even though I batted left-handed) and James was Hondo; and from a couple of blocks over, our friend Doug Wade, still a San Francisco Giants fan, was Willie Mays.

What fun we had. Between playing ball, talking baseball, going over The Sporting News box scores with each other, trading baseball cards, keeping our scorebooks, not to mention our annual All-Star Game parties, we were in absolute heaven; we had it made, man, and we enjoyed following each other’s teams. We knew all three teams inside and out.

The Orioles then were the best team in baseball, the Pirates were very good and on the verge of being the great team they became, and the Senators were absolutely terrible. But they had Frank Howard and, other than 1969 when Ted Williams took over as manager and they finished 86-76, Frank Howard was the only reason you watched the Washington Senators.

He stood 6-foot-7, 270 pounds and consistently hit the ball harder and farther than any player I have ever seen, and that includes any of the hosers from the steroids era.

They called him Hondo, the Capital Punisher and the Washington Monument, and he routinely hit 500-foot home runs, as the upper deck of RFK Stadium was peppered with different-colored seats that Howard reached from home plate. He hit the most ferocious line drives; he hit balls that pitchers and shortstops thought they were going to catch on the line but ended up watching elevate into upper decks because of the power and the force with which they were hit. He was a good all-around hitter, too, as his career .273 batting average attests.

He hit 382 lifetime homers, 237 with the Senators, hitting 44, 48 and 44 in a three-year stretch, leading the American League in 1968 and 1970, and finishing second by one in 1969.

In 1968, baseball’s all-time Year of the Pitcher, he hit eight more home runs than the AL runner-up did and set the MLB record with 10 home runs and 17 RBIs in a six-game stretch. In ’69 under Williams’ tutelage, he improved his strike zone and hit 49 homers despite leading the league with 133 walks.

Howard was an All-American basketball player at Ohio State and, in fact, still holds the school record of 32 rebounds in a game. Yet he loved baseball and signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers and was Rookie of the Year in 1960, made the All-Star team and led the Dodgers to the 1963 World Series title.

Thankfully (for us), he was traded in 1965 to the Senators for pitcher Claude Osteen, a deal that helped the Dodgers go to a pair of World Series and led to a statue of Frank Howard being erected at Nationals Park in Washington.

He hit the final home run by a Washington Senator in the final Senators game at RFK in 1971, which the Nats were one out away from winning, but had to forfeit because the fans stormed the field to protest the team’s move to Arlington, Texas to become the Rangers.

The forfeit didn’t matter at that point, even though it did come to the Yankees. All that mattered was that sixth-inning home run that Frank Howard hit to say goodbye to the Washington fans, who loved him every bit as much as he loved them.

It was a beautiful and heartfelt goodbye, but 34 years later it was a tearful and joyous hello, as Frank Howard was the first person introduced to the Opening Day crowd at RFK when baseball returned to old D.C. with the Washington Nationals.

Frank Howard, you see, will always be the King of Washington Baseball, just as he is one of the kings of so many 60-something year-old kids’ hearts.

Just as Roy Hobbs said, “God, I love baseball.”

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT